A Depressing Debate

Last night’s mayoral debate was a sad affair. But not because of the candidates.

A Depressing Debate

Last night’s mayoral debate was a sad affair. But not because of the candidates.


I had been prepared to despair. We are, after all, a city with real challenges: the highest-taxed big city in the nation, highest poverty rate, highest per capita crime rate, an underfunded pension system about to cripple us. And yet, thus far in this election season, solutions to any – let alone all – of these substantive problems had hardly been seriously talked about.

Surely, this would be an opportunity to, uh, debate, right? To have some give and take about the challenges we face?

Am I alone in viewing last night’s debate as a missed opportunity along those lines? Maybe I’m influenced by having recently caught about twenty minutes of the seven-candidate United Kingdom prime minister debate. (Yes, I was watching C-Span; yes, I have no life.) In that scrum, the candidates actually engaged one another’s ideas, and they did so with wit and verve. More and more, what passes for debate in our political realm is either inane, or the reciting of pre-fabricated talking points. Last night had its share of both.

It wasn’t the candidates who bummed me out. I’d been prepared to be embarrassed by them, but instead I was embarrassed by the questions they were asked.

But this is not a criticism of the candidates. Jim Kenney, Anthony Williams and particularly Doug Oliver all impressed me as smart and mayoral. Kenney talked about bringing zero-based budgeting to city government (it remains to be seen if he’ll have the political guts to do it, because starting budgets from zero exposes their purely political claims), Williams talked about a “pro-growth” economic agenda, and Oliver smartly connected our Millennial population in an holistic way to the overall health of the region – instead of seeing them as just another interest group.

So it wasn’t the candidates who bummed me out. I’d been prepared to be embarrassed by them, and instead I was embarrassed by the questions they were asked.

Because we in the media love to cover politics like it’s a sporting event, let’s keep score. NBC-10 moderator Jim Rosenfield asked a total of 15 questions. I scored six of them as “Substantive” and an astounding nine as “Inane” – all to varying degrees. Let’s see if you agree.

The first question was, essentially, would you fund the shortfall in school funding by supporting Mayor Nutter’s 9.3 percent property tax increase? This is a substantive question, yes, but it’s important to note that it’s not a solutions-based one. It’s not, “How would you fix the schools?”  It’s really about politics and process. Still: 1-0, Substance.

The second question, contributed by a viewer, asked about further cuts to the wage tax. 2-0, Substance.

For his third question, Rosenfield cited the building of the forthcoming Comcast tower (NBC-10’s parent company) in asking how each candidate would keep highly skilled workers from moving to other cities. Again, substantive. And, you could argue, an opening to talk solutions, which some did. 3-0, substance.

By now, we were 27 minutes in, and it was time for the inanity to start. Rosenfield asked Kenney about his temper and his tweets, particularly the one that excoriated Chris Christie for cheering for the Cowboys when they played the Eagles. “Is that appropriate behavior for a big-city mayor?” he asked. Kenney looked all too happy to field this softball; it’s a pandering pol’s dream. You don’t lose votes in Philly for defending the Iggles honor versus the Cowboys. 3-1, Substance.

Next came a question for African-American Doug Oliver. Rosenfield seized on one sentence Oliver uttered at a recent forum: “The sad truth is, police have good reason to fear black men.”

“What did you mean?” Rosenfield asked.

Oliver used all the right language to backtrack – “misconstrued,” chalk it up to “my head and not my heart.” In reality, Oliver had no reason to walk his comment back. He had simply been delivering the same tough love message to black youth that Michael Nutter made in the wake of those flash mobs two summers ago –“you have damaged your own race” –and that Jesse Jackson was getting at when he said: “There is nothing more painful to me…than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Don’t get me wrong; this is an important conversation to have. But it’s one that requires nuance. Rosenfield’s question was more “gotcha” than intellectually curious. 3-2, Substance.

Next came a question to Tony Williams about the criticism of his campaign being funded by “Dark Money,” that is, unlimited amounts of “independent expenditures” that are not to be coordinated with his campaign. Williams had a great response – we all know who those billionaire funders are, now, thanks to press coverage, and he pointed out that Kenney is also a beneficiary of dark money, courtesy of the unions. (Kenney, in his one moment of disingenuousness, said, “I don’t know exactly who it is that’s funding my commercials but I understand that they are working people…not billionaires.”)

Again, dark money is a serious issue – but I’m scoring the question inane because a) it’s framed “gotcha” style and b) it’s more about horse race strategy than actually exploring problem-solving ideas. 3-3, Tied.

Next came a truly absurd question to Nelson Diaz. Apparently, Williams accused Diaz last week of stealing his idea for a community bank. “We want to ask you, point blank, did you get that idea yourself or did you steal it?” This is about when I started Googling the Lincoln-Douglas debates, because I sensed that those two statesmen would right about now be gyrating in their respective graves. Inanity by a nose, 4-3.

Next came the obligatory question for Milton Street, an ex-con: “Why should Philadelphians trust you to follow the letter of the law now?”

Fair question, yes. But inane if the purpose of this debate is to make Philadelphia better. 5-3, Inanity.

Tony Williams had accused Nelson Diaz of stealing his plan for a community bank. “We want to ask you, point blank, did you get that idea yourself or did you steal it?” The NBC-10 moderator asked Nelson Diaz. Lincoln and Douglas started gyrating in their respective graves.

Finally, a string of substantive questions followed: Turning Philly into an energy hub, lobbying Harrisburg, and bring down our 28 percent poverty rate. Not one of the responses prompted one to think, “Hmmm, what an interesting idea, I’ve never thought of it that way before,” but at least Rosenfield’s silly season seemed to be past. Substance regains the lead: 6-5.

But here’s where inanity went all Duke Blue Devil and made a stunning late rally. A flurry of “yes or no” questions ran up the score for inanity – four in all. Ergo: “Yes or no: Do you favor the approval of more charter schools?” Seriously? Poor Tony Williams wanted to give more: “Better schools,” he croaked out, before being excoriated for violating the silly ground rule. Or how about this: “Yes or no: Do you believe Philadelphia has a race relations problem?” Every one said yes. Glad that’s settled.

So, by my count, Inanity won out, 9-6. I’ve watched the debate twice now, and feel better about the candidates but worse about how we talk about our politics. So what can be done about it?

First, let’s acknowledge that we’re not asking the right questions – none of us, either as media members or citizens. This is a job interview, after all, and I want to hear from these applicants why they think they’re qualified. Give me an example where you’ve exhibited political courage, where you’ve said no to a contributor in service of the common good. Give me an example of you solving a vexing problem using some form of political skill, be it cajoling distrusting groups to work together or leveraging relationships in order to strike a deal that benefits the city. Point to an issue that’s worth losing an election over.

Or maybe a better discourse doesn’t come from asking better questions. Just spitballing here, but how’s this for a novel idea: How about ditching the moderator? We’ve got three more televised debates coming. Just consider us – the citizens – the jury and ask each candidate to stand before us and make his or her case in a kind of closing argument. They can rebut each other in their allotted time.

That’s actually what Lincoln and Douglas did; there was no blow-dried anchor reading off cue cards, trying to trip them up. It was just two men, in the summer and fall of 1858, going at it mano-a-mano in seven different cities. One would speak for an hour; the other would rebut for an hour and a half, and the first speaker would have a half-hour to respond to the rebuttal. It wasn’t boring; intricate stories were told, and vile name-calling took place. But it was politics as real argument, not sideshow.

Maybe our politicians are not equipped for that type of depth. But maybe we’ve contributed to their shallowness by not demanding more. So let’s lose the moderator and tell our politicians to give it to us straight. Let’s give them the time and a stopwatch and let them go to it. Last night, funding our broken pension system and how to fix our schools didn’t even come up. And, today, practically all of the news coverage has to do with Lynne Abraham fainting, and what that means for the race – because those of us setting the agenda care more about the drama of the competition than we do about being the referee in the governing game. At least a few times during the NBC-10 debate, it seemed like the candidates wanted to give us more nuance. Next time, if we leave them to their own devices, they could do no worse than what we saw last night.

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